I was about to pay admission for four adults and three grandchildren to roam the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alta., when the cashier slid seven free tickets for my family under the glass. I swallowed back tears. It was Labour Day weekend: Day 19 of the emergency evacuation from Yellowknife, N’dilo, Dettah, and my off-grid community along Ingraham Trail as wildfires advancing from three directions licked at the boundaries of where we lived.
Almost all of the Northwest Territories’ South Slave Region was evacuated three days before us: Hay River, Fort Smith, Kátł’odeeche First Nation, plus the tiny hamlet of Enterprise, which had already burned to the ground. Two-thirds of the territory’s small, scattered population was on the run from climate catastrophe. We were distracting the children with dinosaurs.
By then most of my kin and I had hunkered down in Calgary where we had my brother and extended family to lean on, but our first muster point was Leduc, near the Edmonton airport. We arrived Aug. 16 and Aug. 17 in staggered droves, women and children first by air: my six-months-pregnant daughter-in-law, two infant grandchildren strapped to their mothers’ chests like bundled parachutes, and their three toddlers, who I herded in border-collie fashion across tarmacs and busy parking lots. A hasty call for help to my brother before I boarded meant he’d secured hotel rooms for us to unload our assortment of children’s car seats and the meagre amount of clothes and sundry items we’d thrown into suitcases with just 30 minutes to pack.
The hardest part about that first night away from home was damping down the worry for my three sons, who were sandwiched inside the mass exodus of vehicles wending their way south down Highway 3—the only road out of Yellowknife—with just one gas station before the Alberta border. Authorities deemed the highway open and passable with a pilot car to lead drivers through the smoky, active fire zone between Yellowknife and Behchokǫ, making a three-day window for 6,182 vehicles to cross the Mackenzie River over the Deh Cho Bridge near Fort Providence. Nine days before, the Department of Infrastructure was made aware that one of the large cables that supported the kilometre-long truss bridge had mysteriously broken. The bridge remained open with traffic reduced to one way and a lower speed limit, but what would have happened if it didn’t?
As I laid my head on the pillow that night I pictured my boys’ farewells to their families. The way their wives kissed them with urgency and reticence. The way these young fathers kept looking back, just one more glance, at all they prized most on earth. The rational side of me knew I’d see them the next day. The empath within recognized the anguish felt by parents and partners over the ages whose loved ones left home for war or were forced to separate from family because of civil strife, natural disasters… residential schools.
Ordered to abandon our homes, we did not know hour-to-hour what our fates would be. We were climate refugees. We had not lost our country, but increasingly, we were losing our cold.
That evening I fielded a flurry of messages from concerned friends and family in Canada and abroad who I concluded must be consuming frightening media coverage of our predicament—most likely pictures of the charred remains of Enterprise on repeat, or Lisa Mundy’s harrowing account of how her windshield cracked as her car melted around her and filled with smoke while she fled Hay River with her young children. While I slept, evacuation alerts were issued in West Kelowna for a B.C. wildfire that would eclipse ours in the news cycle with videos of greedy flames roaring down hillsides to engulf whole neighourhoods. All of this came just 10 days after Maui’s Lahaina wildfire killed at least 115 people and incinerated the entire town.
Tensions were high. The stakes were real. The world felt unpredictable.
Still, there was privilege and ease associated with my overall evacuation experience. I piggy-backed out on a charter plane hired to evacuate a large B.C. construction company that was working in the territory. My son’s friend worked for the company and had been tasked by its generous president with filling all extra seats, preferably with families with small children, as a way to ease the overall burden of removing 20,000 people from the capital. My son secured us passage and ordered me to help the moms shepherd my five grandchildren. There’s a reason we nicknamed him “911” when he was younger. Because their families had adopted a “no dogs get left behind” credo, the dads would drive out.
Pets were a huge conundrum for evacuees. Northerners are dog people. The scramble for pet crates to take animals on commercial planes was frenzied and eventually the major airlines loosened the requirement. Sienna Kellar from Innisfail, Alta., who used to live and ride horses in Yellowknife, convoyed 18 hours with four trucks hauling livestock trailers into the fire zone to rescue horses, goats, donkeys, mini ponies, even some budgies. Over the next two days Canadian Armed Forces flew people out of Yellowknife on Hercules transport planes, owners strapped to the walls with their pets on leashes beside them.
The Edmonton Evacuation Centre registered an impressive 1,300 pets and 7,497 people. Evacuees were given bracelets that granted them free bus transportation and access to recreation facilities while the Canadian Red Cross arranged food vouchers and lodging. Still, much like COVID, there were incalculable hardships for some: the sick and elderly, people with disabilities, the self-employed, people experiencing homelessness, people with mental health issues, unilingual elders; many were caught in a sea of confusion about where to go and how to finance their precarious new circumstances.
I had means and family to host us, so I did not need to avail myself to these services. No, by contrast, as evacuee centres were hastily being resurrected across Alberta, I was inquiring with our Leduc hotel, part of the Hilton chain, if four large husky crosses and a duck toller could be accommodated that night.
The dogs looked stressed and their people bedraggled when they rolled in at suppertime after a 1,500-kilometre, sleepless odyssey. Smoke from the NWT still clung to their vehicles inside and out, making them smell like filthy ashtrays. In a cruel twist, a steady rain began to fall. We awoke to a loud, steely clattering on the roof, hailstones the size of golf balls being hurtled by what looked like hurricane winds, before thunder and lightning seized the night sky. “Geez, what’s next, locusts?” my bleary-eyed son asked as he peeled back the curtain.
The dank scent of wet dogs and spent diapers was about as much physical hardship as I would endure during the evacuation, but mentally, a whole lot more was at play.
For weeks prior I’d suffered a sort of stasis, unable to make decisions about what should be done to safeguard my home, located beside a lake about 30 kilometres east of Yellowknife, beyond municipal boundaries or the reach of utilities. Initially, my husband and I concluded we had no valuables except for our children and grandchildren, therefore, with the exception of our passports, we moved nothing.
On second thought, I drove our photo albums to my son’s garage in Yellowknife. Then our handmade beaver mitts (the only ones that keep me warm at -40 C). An old laptop. Heavily redacted files from social services that a Sixties Scoop survivor had entrusted to me and that I intended to write about. Gradually, I began to envision myself as a phoenix rising from the ashes, my mother’s wedding ring clutched to my chest and a near-holy expression of sentimental appreciation on my face for the foresight I’d had in the before times.
When Yellowknife itself came under fire threat, my sense of futility heightened. I could not bring myself to lug my goods back home. Decision exhaustion set in.
One pro-active move everyone had been advised to undertake was FireSmarting. The preventative measures mainly involved reducing the amount of combustible materials around your home and property. But when you live off-grid in a wood-sided home with a wood deck surrounded by fire-dependent coniferous trees like jackpine and highly flammable spruce, that’s essentially everything.
We also use firewood to supplement heating our home. My neighbour had eight cords of firewood delivered on the Friday before the evacuation order, likely the last delivery from Hay River’s Patterson Sawmill before it went up in flames that weekend. Earlier in the summer she’d laid wood chips down the footpath to the lake, basically a wick for any wildfire to find her house. We could not see our way clear to FireSmart in a meaningful manner. Instead we soaked down the forest and woodpiles with a series of irrigation sprinklers connected to pumps by the lake while ash fell like snowflakes.
By this point my husband had been called out of retirement to work 12-hour shifts with other retired fire specialists on tactical and logistical defense efforts. I envied him his sense of purpose.
I floundered indoors under a type of house arrest. The number of smoke hours in Yellowknife almost doubled the previous peak of 476 in 2014. That necessitated 92 Air Quality Health Index alerts from Environment and Climate Change Canada up until mid-September. I worried for the birds and animals who had no indoor respite. Connecting to the land and waters on the traditional Akaitcho Dene territory that surrounds me has been what has sustained my mental health for more than three decades. Somehow, I’d taken our air—unsullied from manufacturing, cleansed in part of CO2 by the great lungs of the circumpolar world, the boreal forest—for granted. Now those lungs were spewing back carbon and particulates in unprecedented volumes. Now that air gave me headaches and made me cough.
The longing and hopelessness I was experiencing has a name. Solastalgia: “The pain or sickness caused by the loss or the lack of solace and the sense of isolation connected to the present state of one’s home and territory,” according to Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht, a former environmental studies professor who coined the term in 2005. With solastalgia, you cannot return to the home you are longing for—it is there but not the same—altered in distressing ways by climate change, weather events, fire, or other environmental factors.
In late April and May, when the more than 4,200 kilometres of frozen lakes and tributaries of the vast Mackenzie River system began their melt, there was a foreboding sense something wasn’t right. Breakup on Great Slave Lake came fast and early. By mid-summer once-raging waterfalls were reduced to trickles. Sandra Lester and her brother narrowly escaped the fire that engulfed their homes and their family sawmill by driving onto the riverbed of the Hay River. It was bone dry.
Great Slave Lake’s water levels have shifted from a record low in 2019, to the highest on record in 2020-2022, back to a new record low this September. “The magnitude and frequency of these fluctuations have not previously been seen in the 88-year record,” according to the NWT Hydrometric Network, a territorial-federal partnership operated by the Water Survey of Canada.
The fluctuations are the result of extremely dry and hot weather systems that have moved over the entirety of the Great Slave basin, which includes sub-basins in northern B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan and NWT, all places that have experienced substantial wildfires, and smoke, this year. The network reported these weather systems were likely a combination of climate variability from La Niña and El Niño events and climate change.
“NWT temperature records were off the charts this year compared to last year,” Jesse Wagar, a meteorologist with Environment and Climate Change Canada, confirmed. Norman Wells reached a record 37.9 C and Fort Good Hope 37.4 C in July. Both communities are just shy of the Arctic Circle.
On occasions when the smoke cleared enough to go for a walk, I noted the impacts of Yellowknife’s fourth year of drought conditions and the heat that continued well into September. Once reliable cranberry patches were dried and void of fruit. Spruce bud worms dropped from parched trees onto my hair. I can’t remember any mosquitos this summer. These ecosystem changes affected my own sense of identity and security and caused grief. Solastalgia.
The Mental Health Commission of Canada places the grief of solastalgia under the broader umbrella term of eco-anxiety, or climate anxiety, defined by the American Psychological Association as “a chronic fear of environmental doom.” True, I could tick off much on the checklist of symptoms for eco-anxiety: obsessive thoughts about climate, guilt related to my own carbon footprint, anger or frustration toward older generations or government officials who have not done enough to curtail climate change.
But I had not succumbed to two important ones: existential dread or fatalistic thinking. The commission says one-third of Canadians believe it’s too late to curb climate change so why bother.
Tell that to your children and grandchildren. Or mine. I believe we have a duty to posterity during our brief time on the planet; that we must take the long view as embodied in the Haudenosaunee philosophy that decisions taken today should result in a sustainable world seven generations into the future.
In her uplifting 2022 book, Still Hopeful: Lessons from a Lifetime of Activism, Maude Barlow says nothing makes her angrier than hearing people with relative safety and security say they’ve “given up” because there’s “no point.” Barlow writes: “Hope is a moral imperative for those of us who have had the luck of living in places that are relatively safe or who are born into privilege by the colour of our skin or the financial situation of our families.”
Like many lifelong activists, she advises people suffering from any form of eco-paralysis or sense of despair to seek out the power of community: people who share your concerns and are also eager for change. People like my former neighbour, France Benoit.
When the evacuation ended after three weeks in much the same manner as it began for me—with short notice for a return flight to a city still surrounded by active, but less threatening, wildfires and shrouded in toxic smoke. I did not experience the euphoria I had anticipated. Something that helped me awaken feelings of hope was seeing how Benoit’s foresight years ago, her long-view thinking, had impacted the effort to rescue the NWT capital this summer.
Benoit saw a need to create greater food security in the North and reduce the emissions and high costs associated with food transportation to remote places, so she started growing food commercially in her off-grid home along Ingraham Trail. Eventually she moved to Yellowknife so she could ditch her vehicle and buy an e-bike or rent an EV from the YK Car Share Co-op, but she planted more gardens and leased a large plot of land for vegetables, which she sold to a former employee who then grew more food and opened a bakery. The woman who bought Benoit’s first home expanded its greenhouse operation exponentially.
When Yellowknife shut down during the evacuation, so did grocery stores and restaurants. These commercial gardens and the bakery became important food sources to feed hundreds of firefighters and work crews building firebreaks around the city. Yellowknife’s evacuation also shed light on the city’s importance as a food distribution hub to outlying communities like Łutsel K›e, which suffered food shortages and received some produce from the gardens.
“For the people who didn’t believe that commercial growing in the subarctic was possible, I say bullshit, we’ve shown it is and it’s making a difference,” Benoit says.
In her quest to reduce her own carbon footprint, she had solar panels installed on her roof in June that feed power into the grid and reduce her fuel bill. A few days after the installation the NWT government announced a $15.2-million subsidy to the NWT Power Corp. to offset the increased costs of running its diesel generators because low water levels in the Snare River Basin prevented hydro generation.
“If they’re able to find $15 million on a regular basis, because it seems to be a problem that’s likely to occur again and has occurred in the past, why can’t they set aside a small portion of that to buy people solar panels so families can reduce their home heating costs and we create power for our community?” Benoit asks.
As I write, my husband is installing lithium-ion phosphate batteries in our house to absorb the charge from our bigger, more powerful solar array, while helicopters burning fossil fuels sling large fuel drops to a nearby mining exploration camp in search of lithium under lakes and rock. The road to renewable energy at times seems circular and complicated but it needs to happen now. Globally, this July was the warmest on record, between 1.5 C and 1.6 C above preindustrial levels, according to the Copernicus Climate Change Service. That means people have already experienced the heat of the climate goal set by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which says holding global warming to 1.5 C requires emissions to be cut by almost half by 2030.
During evacuation, my family and I participated in some of the free events and activities Albertans graciously offered people displaced by wildfires. When the cashier at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller handed me free tickets, I cried. Not because I was spared some $80 in admission costs. It was the shared humanity this generosity represented. What it said was, we see you, we understand you’re scared and living with uncertainty. Let us help you take your mind off that for a moment.
The entrance to one of the final exhibits, the K-Pg Extinction, was heralded by a long vertical video screen of a raging inferno with billowing smoke. Beside it, under the title, “A DEADLY DAY” in red illuminated capital letters, was an explanation of how an asteroid crashed to Earth 66 million years ago. In its wake it caused chaos, wildfires and species decimation.
“Well this is triggering,” my daughter-in-law remarked as she hugged her baby tighter to her chest. I quaked inside too.
Outside, despite wildfire smoke that had drifted in from elsewhere, we took in breathtaking vistas of the majestic rock striations of the Red Deer Valley badlands. The bands of grey-green mudstones and dark-coloured coal beds were flourishing wetlands about 72 million years ago. These ancient, swampy forests buried deep within the planet held onto their energy from the sun until, as fossils, they were mined for fuel that would power the industrial revolution and set us on the path to the climate crisis we are in today.
The Royal Tyrrell Museum did not take my mind off wildfires, or the earth’s hottest summer since global records began in 1880. That’s okay. They deserve my attention. Astronomer and science guru Carl Sagan once said: “Anything else you are interested in is not going to happen if you can’t breathe the air and drink the water.” Ultimately, this is the shared fate and humanity that must lead us all to climate action. I hope.